The Bowlus Road Chief Is Reviving The Golden Era Of Trailer Travel
One look at a Bowlus and you want it. I don’t care who you are, when you see something this shiny, ths beautifully designed, this cozy, you just want it. Halfway through the photoshoot a car stopped on the side of PCH, a man got out and shouted over: “Is that a Bowlus?!” These trailers have a cult like following, and for good reason.
John and Geneva Long are a Father/Daughter team that is tackling the challenge of reviving the nearly century old manufacturer, and improving on it in a way that will make the trailers viable for another century to come. Here’s their story.
Ted Gushue: Tell me the story of how you brought Bowlus back to life.
John Long: We had the Tatra. We went on a long Tatra road trip to the Arctic, and while we were there I started to dream about a trailer to match the aerodynamic, timeless shape of a Tatra, which led me to a Bowlus. It took about a year and I found an original 1935 Bowlus and hauled it back to Toronto. Proceeded to restore it thinking, naïvely, that a Bowlus would be much easier to restore than a car. Car has an engine, transmission, and all this kind of stuff. How difficult can a trailer be?
TG: It’s just a silver pod on wheels!
JL: Right, exactly. I actually found out that it’s really quite difficult to restore a Bowlus. Most trailers would have been a little easier, but a Bowlus was a bit difficult.
TG: How did you arrive at the Bowlus and not Airstream?
JL: Well, I got fascinated with a Bowlus because sort of three things. One, it’s the original, so Airstream is copy of Bowlus, Bowlus came first with the ridged aluminum trailer. Second, Hawley Bowlus was just an absolute fanatic for light weight. If you look at the design of the 1935s, it’s just absolutely amazing. It’s a fanatical devotion to making light weight so that you could actually pull it with a normal car. Because he was a sailplane manufacturer, he was phenomenally interested in aerodynamics in terms of trying to make a shape that was the most aerodynamic, so that you could pull it easily with a normal car.
This seemed like it was the thing I had to get because it combined a real interest in light weight, a real interest in aerodynamics, and it was a trailer. It was really, really revolutionary for the time.
TG: Where were you in your career that you felt that you were in a position to take on a new challenge like this?
JL: I was retired, and we had the original Bowlus trailer for 10 years.
Geneva Long: We took John’s 1930s Bowlus to the Modernism show in Palms Springs and I think it was 2010 or 2011? We were going someplace out west right after. The response at the Modernism show was insane. Everyone wanted to get in this Bowlus. Back then, not a lot of restored ‘Bowluses’…people like to say, ‘Bowli’…I don’t know about that one.
TG: Sounds like a disease.
Geneva Long: Yeah. Exactly. Everyone wanted to get into this thing and I was a junior in college at that point. Looking at what I wanted to do going forward. We went to South by Southwest with it, looking to get more involved in the tech and music scene that was developing back then in music that was going on. I said, “Could we make a business out of this?” I mean, John had restored his 1930s Bowlus extremely authentically, so if we updated it a bit, you know, there were some things I thought needed to go…
TG: Give me an example.
GL: The fabrics looked like granny’s house.
TG: I love that, though.
GL: It’s so authentic. It’s great. The floor is…
JL: …original linoleum. I was a fanatic for authenticity of the 1930s.
GL: Same thing you see in the Tatras is that continuity. Those things needed to be changed. It wasn’t modern enough. It was too short inside. It was only 6 feet [tall] inside. The modern Bowlus is 6’4”, a little bit longer. The beds could accommodate someone who’s 6’4. The old bed could do maybe 5’10’’ comfortably?
JL: The big problems with the bed in the back of the vintage one is they’re narrow, really narrow. People were smaller in the ’30s.
GL: We sat down and thought about what changes we wanted to make. Things like the solar panel hook ups. The 4G amplifier. All those modern conveniences. The modern fabrics. The modern feel of the wood. The minimalist feature of the wood, and put all those things together…and John went away and started working on prototyping it. A few years later, we brought that to the New York Times and they loved it. That’s when we started taking reservations.
TG: What was the prototyping process like?
JL: It was absolutely, totally, fun.
JL: Yep, it was great. We needed to take the spirit and the idea of the 1935, but obviously, the way it was built you really couldn’t build it today like that. Because we talked about making it bigger, wider, longer and higher. The total mass went up quite a bit. That’s why we decided to go for an aluminum frame, a welded aluminum frame. Because the originals actually have galvanized steel frames. The original trailer was very robust, but the seats and everything inside were just simply bent metal. They couldn’t take a great deal of weight. We had to re-engineer a lot if the inside.
The supporting of the couches, the supporting for the chairs, the way we built the kitchen. All those kinds of things that actually is the way modern people address things. In those days people would sit down on the couch like they were sitting on granny’s couch, very gently. That wouldn’t work in a modern travel trailer. We built a lot of those pieces. Prototyped them. Some of the frames we had to chuck out because they didn’t work or all this kind of stuff. During that process, we developed the process by which to manufacture, actually, the trailer. All the standard operating procedures, all the masters for the sheets on the outside.
The riveting methodologies. All those kinds of things. That was really fun, but the most difficult part was getting it up to standard. Because the standards are not built for a riveted monocoque aluminum trailers: they’re built for large white boxes.
TG: Road-going standards?
JL: Not just those standards but also weird and wonderful things you would never think about, like drainage and where exactly the plug in has to be for the electrical system, and all these things are regulated.
GL: During this time, we also sourced all the interior parts which obviously takes a while finding the right axles, finding the right supplier for the axles. The right microwave. We have a limited space to put all these things in, so there wasn’t a huge amount of options for any of these products we use.
TG: Sure. What were some of the unexpected challenges that popped up along the way?
JL: Well, I’d like to say the regulation was a big one. It was very difficult. I learned to read the regulations extremely well to understand how we could conform to regulations…but not turn it into a white box, which was my greatest fear. We had to keep what a Bowlus is, in other words, it had to be aerodynamic. It had to be lightweight, and it had to be luxurious. They were very luxurious in the 1930s.
TG: Define 1930s luxury.
JL: They were used in Hollywood pictures. It had running water on the inside. It had drains. It had its own fresh water tank. It had its own radio, which was huge. Cars just started having radios back then. It had its own modern 20-volt electrical system. It had a telephone. Every car that had a Bowlus had a telephone in the car, and in the Bowlus. You could call back and forth.
GL: You could be cooking dinner while someone was driving.
JL: People rode in trailers in those days. Can you imagine?
GL: Don’t stop suddenly!
JL: His son, Jack Bowlus, came home from a hospital with his mother in a Bowlus trailer. That was a normal thing in those days. Of course, this has all ended now but…
TG: It’s illegal to do now, right?
JL: You can still ride in the trailer legally in 4 states, surprisingly.
Ted: How many have you made so far?
JL: We’ve made just over a dozen. 15 now are on the road and a number of them are in production.
TG: Do you intend to keep production numbers low to make them exclusive?
GL: Right now, we have a list of people waiting to get a Road Chief and we haven’t sold more than we could produce at this time. We know it’s important for us to have an authentic high-quality product that comes out, a product that we’ve always wanted to last for 80 years or more so you could restore it. That’s something we can’t unfortunately produce at a fast rate. We’re scaling at this point.
TG: Do you have the opportunity for customers to customize after they’ve ordered it? Let’s say that I wanted a new mattress or something which you wouldn’t normally do in the normal production.
GL: We haven’t had any special requests at this point.
JL: From a business point of view, it an interesting model to try to produce a low run, highly-crafted product. When you think of it, it’s very much like in the car business, it might be Ferrari or old Ferrari, Lotus, Morgan. That kind of thing where they’re running quite low production numbers per say, but they have to produce a fairly high quality product. The earlier Rolls Royce’s, when they were producing 1,500 a year or something like that. Is in the sort of the same kind of situation that we’re in.
The most interesting thing that we’re finding along the way is that in the trailer market, the traditional trailer market, it’s mostly men buying trailers. We find however that half the people buying a Bowlus are women. Half of this company is owned by Geneva. Which also kind of makes sense. When you talk about a light weight aerodynamic trailer that’s very agile, easy to move around, easy to pull, and all those kinds of things. Beautiful fit and finish, and inside it all goes together—it makes sense why that market might be interested it.
TG: How many original Bowlus trailers are still alive today?
JL: He built 80 in the ’30s and 40 still exist. There’s 50% survival rate. This is the ’30s. Can you imagine the survival rate of cars from the ’30s is hardly 1%? Even if you’re talking about cars of the ’50s, you don’t have survival rate of 50%. It’s astronomical. When we designed the Bowlus, that was one of things that we were just absolutely fanatical about. We said, “If he built it in the ’30s and I can use my trailer today and I’m not unique, we have to live up to that standard.” There are a number of Bowlus’ on the road. There’s about a dozen that are roadable. People use them on weekends and all the rest of this kind of stuff from the ’30s. We need to build that into our trailers.
We’re building a trailer that lasts 80 to 100 years, a multi-generation trailer, if you will. If you go inside, you can see all the different features that allow this trailer to be restored in 50 years. It’s a very weird way of thinking about things, the idea that all the wood does come out with screws, that everything in the interior can come out. We’ve gone through hoops to make sure that the interior metal walls can come down with rivet nuts and special screws and all the rest of this stuff. The entire interior can come out, because we know in 50 years somebody will want to restore it.
We’ve done that. Kind of like a fine watch or an airplane. If you buy a brand new airplane, you don’t think, “Yeah, I’ll get 20 years with it, and then we’ll crush it”. No, you still see planes from the ’40s flying—it’s because they can be restored. There’s no planned obsolescence.
A huge thank you to John and Geneva Long for sharing the Bowlus story with us, and to John for a smashing ride in his Tatra, one of the only air-cooled V8s in the world.
Photography by Ted Gushue